Healing Into Possibility

The transformational lessons of a stroke--and how they can help you face your challenges.

Getting Out of the Way: The Balance Between Homeostasis and Growth

How do we develop our capacity to open to possibilities?

Are we getting in the way of our own lives? I was. I did not understand the balance between stability and growth.

Magnifying glass and butterfly
Paying Attention
We are biological systems. We might like to imagine that we are immune to the influences of our biology but we are not. As we age or when we are injured the truth of this becomes very apparent. Our biological systems are designed with both positive and negative feedback loops that respond to the impact of the world around us. Negative feedback loops promote homeostasis, keeping things more or less as they are. We notice something is sharp (negative) and we pull back from it so we are not cut. Positive feedback loops promote novelty and growth. We notice that exercise makes us feel healthy (positive) and we begin to take regular walks. Both feedback loops are in continuous operation. Both are necessary.

Homeostasis is critical to survival. If our bodies do not maintain themselves within certain tolerances (temperature being one example) we cannot function. Growing through creative change is also critical. If we cannot adapt to shifts in our environment (changing food sources being one example) we cannot function either.

There is a constant dynamic tension between homeostasis and creative change. Too much change at once can disrupt internal balance. Too little change can lead to stagnation. With the media impact of constant stories of disasters and difficulties, we may develop a habitual tendency to focus on homeostasis, pulling back from creative change. We may find ourselves wishing our lives to be predictable, solid and unchanging. If forget the critical balance between the two systems and we attempt to organize our lives to minimize change we can profoundly limit both the possibilities for growth and satisfaction in our lives and our ability to respond to injury and illness when they happen.

I have often said that for a long time I was getting in the way of my own life. Like many people, in an effort to maintain homeostasis, I wanted to think of my life as more or less unchanging or changing very slowly, as something that was permanent. Having a stroke taught me the truth about the illusion of permanence in a hurry. Ignoring the presence of change may give us a temporary sense of stability, but it is an illusion.

Change is constant. That's the truth of being alive. Our bodies are constantly shifting, growing, shrinking, developing new set points for homeostasis, accommodating new information. Whether we look or not, this process is happening in every moment. When I lost my illusion of permanence and began actually to look at what life was offering to me, I discovered a wealth of possibilities I had never stopped to notice. I was stunned at the abundance. That abundance had been there all along. I had simply never looked.

How do we develop our capacity to be open to the possibilities around us, to loosen our fear of impermanence? The first step is simply to acknowledge that we are working with the balance between homeostasis and creative change - that we need both.

The second step is to pay attention - not label, not judge, not push away, not grab - just pay attention to what is happening within us and around us right now. Seems simple enough, but actually it's not. Paying attention takes practice. Possibilities arise around us in every moment. We miss them because we are not paying attention, because we have labeled things before we take the time to discover what they are. Someone looks different or speaks in a way we don't understand and, without noticing, we instantly give them a label ("old", "young", "beautiful", "unkind", "dangerous") and think we know something about them and what they bring to our lives. But we don't. Until we actually pay attention to what or who is in front of us, we really have no idea what gifts this experience may bring.

There are many ways to pay attention. We could practice attention by noticing any number of things.  A very simple and effective tool for training our attention can be noticing our breathing. That's why meditation practices teach us to do this. Breathing is never constant. Each breath is different. No breath stays fixed for a moment. Even if we hold our breath, our body changes in response to that holding instant by instant. Focusing our attention on breathing is a practice that's available to us all the time.

The other advantage of noticing breathing, besides its constant availability, is that we can pay attention to it with all our capacities for attention at once. We can watch our bellies rise and fall; we can hear the sound of the air moving in our bodies; we can feel the physical sensation of movement; we can smell the air coming in; we can taste the breath in our mouths; we can feel the feelings that arise in response to our breathing; and we can notice the thoughts that come and go. We train all the ways we pay attention at the same time, cultivating an open, non-judgmental curiosity. We notice what is happening - not what we decide should be happening.

As we train our attention we can turn that basic curiosity to everything. Rather than making judgments, we can simply become aware of what life is bringing us on all levels.  And we can cultivate an appreciative awareness of the balance in our lives between homeostasis and creative change. 

To get out of the way of our own lives, to become open to possibilities, we begin by paying attention. It sounds easier than it is but we can practice paying attention now and increase our capacity. Then the habit will be there when we need it. You may be amazed at what you discover. I was.

Alison Bonds Shapiro, M.B.A., works with stroke survivors and their families, and is the author of Healing into Possibility: the Transformational Lessons of a Stroke.

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